Reflections on an agency start-up

Hanover Middle East formally turned two years old this week. Momentum is your ruler as a start-up so, while I'm not entirely sure how time has moved so fast, it's certainly been a ride.

Hanover Middle East managing director Jonty Summers.
Hanover Middle East managing director Jonty Summers.

We’ve had some great moments that will be familiar to all in our world: some terrific work clients; pitches with real distinction (some won, some lost); working in cafes because we didn’t yet have an office (we’re now on our third); evening ‘strategic planning’ sessions in bars (curiously, I’ve lost count of how many); relentless networking and aspiring to ‘punch above our weight’ in marketing. We’ve even made an acquisition, which I accept is not especially common in year one of operations.

Some observations on what has worked well for us in setting up:

Choose your specialism

To quote David Brain, my former boss: "Be the best at least one thing; excellence in one specialism will rub off on the rest of the business". We were very deliberate in focusing on a tightly defined offer in our core areas of strength: reputation management and crisis communications. Hanover has many areas of excellence in Europe, but we knew that as a small on-ground team, it would be harder to ensure high-quality delivery if we tried to mirror these immediately. We subsequently added to other areas of strength, such as financial and healthcare communications.

Pick the right companions

Always, always choose to work with good people. Starting up an office is intense; there is a lot on the line. You can work long hours and for a considerable amount of risk. (In our case, Employee Number Two had chosen a full-time transfer from our London office, rather than a secondment, which would have enabled her to go back if it didn’t work out.) You really go ‘all in’ when you start up, so working with people you actively enjoy and you look forward to working with, not just ones you rub along with, is essential.

Prioritise team harmony

It goes without saying that you’d like a team with superstar experience, but a more important characteristic is finding people who understand teamwork and are able to work together as one unit to achieve a greater goal. The daily feeling we have actively tried to foster, both as a tight-knit three-person unit over the first nine months and as a couple of dozen following our acquisition of Bell Pottinger Middle East at the beginning of 2018, is that we are a band of pioneers doing amazing work. It’s exhilarating.  

Culture rules

Hanover’s culture is one that promotes thoughtfulness, curiosity and collaboration, where individuals take responsibility for results. We talk of trailblazing – both in behaviour and ideas. We’ve done a few things to get this spirit right as a new office in the broader Hanover family. Our specialist nature plays in our favour here, as a number of our specialisms operate as single teams, including healthcare, crisis and digital. So we talk to colleagues in different timezones regularly.

Having someone who had worked in Hanover’s business in Europe as part of the start-up team was also very important. I didn’t want to have a satellite office that had no idea what the culture in the mothership was like. A number of our team have spent time in other offices and the whole team flew to Paris to celebrate our 20th-anniversary last summer.

We’ve also hosted more international visitors than we have employees over the past 18 months (curiously, Dubai is a popular place for European visitors in the winter months). We’re a people business: face-to-face is always better.

Jonty Summers is the managing director of Hanover Middle East

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